‘Call Me By Your Name’ avoids the thing that hangs over too many LGBTQ films — tragedy
Call Me By Your Name is everything it should be. It’s a rousing portrait of first love, with all of the quick glances and initial touches that come with that. It’s also a touching depiction a queer love, a stunning rendering of Italy in the early ’80s and an opportunity to ogle Armie Hammer and his goofy dance moves.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel is also an uncomplicated narrative. The film — which finally opens in the U.S. on Friday after generating nearly a year’s worth of buzz following January’s Sundance Film Festival — is conventionally structured as a slow burn. At the risk of an anti-spoiler, there’s no sudden plot twist that sets the movie down some crazy path. Instead, Guadagnino guides us, in a subtle but direct way, through the all-consuming desire experienced by a teenager in love.
That straightforward approach makes the film feel accessible and instantly familiar. But it also makes for a picture that avoids falling into the territory of tragedy — a mode that has, for so long, defined queer narratives on screen.
Considering that Call Me By Your Name is a love story between two young men — Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old self-described American-French-Italian-Jewish hybrid, and Oliver (Hammer), the handsome and elusive summer assistant to Elio’s academic father — it’s not outrageous, especially for queer viewers, to expect that their romance will somehow end in doom. Maybe someone will get hurt or die. Or Elio’s parents will find out that Oliver, the American student who’s staying with them for the summer, is sleeping with their son, and they’ll interfere or forbid them from seeing each other.
In most romantic dramas, queer or not, there’s usually some third-act twist like that — some plot development that heightens the story’s conflict. But sudden eruptions of violence or danger are especially prevalent in queer stories in film. You don’t have to look much further than 2005’s heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain, 1992’s outrageously offensive Basic Instinct, or 1980’s damaging Cruising. As the late, gay film historian Vito Russo illustrated in his comprehensive 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, if queer characters aren’t villains or over-the-top side characters in a movie, they might as well be marked for death.
Guadagnino appears acutely aware of this trope, and instead of refusing to acknowledge it, he does something bolder. He seems to nod toward this idea and toys with it, by introducing several red herrings throughout the film that appear to foreshadow some sort of devastation. Without spoiling the film’s conclusion — which is now ambiguous, since Guadagnino’s announced he’s hoping to make a sequel — there’s definitely some bittersweetness to the story, but there’s no grand tragedy in Call Me By Your Name. Which means that the film is not only a positive representation of a queer relationship, but it’s also a refreshing subversion of what’s too often the status quo: queer stories that have a tragic end.
The first and perhaps most anxiety-inducing fake out, is a cut that appears on Oliver’s lower body after he falls off of a bike. It seems to be healing at first, as he says so himself, but Oliver later notes that the wound looks to have worsened and grown infected. When he lifts up his shirt to show the wound to Elio (and the audience), it’s a thrilling moment. In that instant, you can feel Elio’s desire for Oliver and the intimacy that’s building between the two.
[‘Call Me By Your Name’ is] a refreshing subversion of what’s too often the status quo: queer stories that have a tragic end.
At the same time, the scene is a bit eerie, even if Guadagnino wasn’t going for eeriness. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but to this writer, Oliver’s cut looks lesion-like in its last appearance. Given the fact that the movie is set in 1983, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, it’s tough to stop the mind from going there. At the very least, we’re trained as movie viewers to expect something like that to come back later in the film, for it to be relevant later in the story. But that’s not the case.
Something similar occurs when, in the middle of a family lunch, Elio suddenly gets a nosebleed. His parents seem used to it, but when Elio runs from the table to look for a napkin, Oliver’s gaze follows him. He’s concerned and when he catches up with Elio, Oliver nervously kids about having caused the bleeding. It’s a silly joke, but it does underline the expectation that their romance isn’t long for this world, that something will come between them.
But nothing overblown or melodramatic happens. Elio can have a nosebleed and it can just be incidental — a character detail, and not a signifier of some oncoming calamity. The focus of the story is their romance, and it isn’t upstaged by anything else.
Call Me By Your Name certainly isn’t the first LGBTQ film to avoid a tragic twist; recent works like Moonlight and Carol are emotionally wrenching, but they’re not defined by some upsetting last-minute development. Still, it feels jarring to see a film like Call Me By Your Name, which is garnering plenty of awards-season buzz, refuse to turn maudlin. As the story nears its close, you’re waiting for something to go wrong. It doesn’t. Instead, like Elio and Oliver, the audience is spared.